I always assumed that people who volunteer made a conscious, deliberate decision to do so. In my case, that’s not true. This is my story about how I fell into volunteering at Bethany.
To give a little background, I was in my 40s and suffering from several health conditions which made me unable to work. My health varies a lot, day to day, but even on a good day, I suffer from pain and nausea. I enjoy writing and am part of a Writers’ Group which was pretty much the only social thing I did.
At the Jobcentre I was advised that I needed to be doing something specific and regular to prepare myself for work when my health improved. I remember thinking, “How am I meant to do that? I can’t predict which days I’ll be able to do anything!” My conditions can be very hard to predict, although I have got better at managing my health.
There was a lady from Port of Leith Housing Authority who the Jobcentre advised me to speak with. In fact, I had met her through my writing group! We had a chat and decided the best option would be something writing related so that I could practice my communication and IT skills, and my interest in writing would keep me focused. The only group option available at the time that would be acceptable to the DWP was the Bethany Christian Trust Bugle Magazine group, which I was told to at least try and now I’m grateful that I did.
Not being from Edinburgh, I knew nothing about Bethany Christian Trust. Googling told me their goal is to prevent and end homelessness. I was a little concerned when I went along on my first Wednesday afternoon, as I didn’t know what to expect. I was unsure if it would be a writing group or a therapeutic group!
The Bugle Magazine is a writing group and while some of the writing is a little more therapeutic than my usual writing style, there was no pressure to write anything too deep and meaningful or anything I wasn’t comfortable with. It’s a group of some of the nicest people I have ever met; many had faced issues I never had but with help they had, or were, overcoming them.
The staff there are great, too. On my first day, we had a cup of tea and discussed why I was there and what my general situation was like. We decided that I would attend the group and that they could offer me a Support Worker for the next six months, a very kind and patient lady called Catherine. I owe Catherine a huge vote of thanks; she helped me to realise how much I had isolated myself, that there were issues I needed to consider physically and emotionally. She also told me about the crime author, Peter May, for which I owe even more thanks!
It was during these first 6 months that I started going to another Bethany group, a lunch time drop in that was just starting up. I tried to go along most weeks to show my support and to meet people – of course, the free lunch didn’t hurt either!
After a few months, I was doing better; I’d made some new friends and even my flat was looking better. Christine had gently encouraged me to look at all the clutter, to get rid of some of the stuff I’d never use. I am a hoarder – I just can’t seem to help it! Back then I was worse, but I was working on it.
Life was looking better, apart from one thing; I felt bad that I was getting so much help while giving nothing back. Bethany Christian Trust has a lot of volunteers and this seemed a great way of balancing the scales a little. I started doing some admin work for them, around two hours a week. At first it began as a couple of hours every other week while I learned to work around my conditions and medications.
I was asked if I could help out with Bethany’s computer drop in group, as one of the volunteers needed to take some time off and the group really needed two volunteers. It would have felt rude to say no so I figured I could do it for a few weeks until the person returned. Well, they returned but then the other volunteer needed some time away, so I continued helping. I enjoy seeing everyone, we chat and keep things informal – it’s great seeing their confidence grow as they learn how to make computers work!
That was two years ago and now it’s definitely part of my regular routine. I still go to the Bugle group but I ended up going from member to a volunteer there – it was just a natural progression! I’d been helping to set up the computers for the group, supporting people to edit and print their work, now I just do it a little more officially.
I never formally decided I should do this. It started with me feeling a bit guilty and then it became a habit. I never thought to myself, “Well, this will help me socialise more or open up training options”. Instead, I made friends, met people who had gone through problems that would have completely flattened me. I regained confidence that I didn’t even realise I had lost until I started to look at what had become ‘normal’ for me. I’ve performed poetry in front of a live audience which I’d always found an excuse to avoid before. I discovered that I can write funny poems, which was a shock as I can’t tell jokes to save my life!
So, the short version is to TRY volunteering. It doesn’t have to be a huge decision and you might just get a lot more out of it than you put in – I certainly did!